As we speak, 44 million Americans are side hustling. They’re going to their normal jobs, but in the margins of the day, they’re grinding on another business or passion project.
As tempting as it is to pursue that side project early in the morning or late into the night, the extra hustle may be what’s killing your next great idea. What you might gain in those extra working hours, you lose in sleep.
The loss of sleep is poisonous to three ingredients that make entrepreneurs successful: the ability to identify an innovative idea, the poise to pass on mediocre ones, and the insight to see non-obvious avenues for businesses to grow.
This article first appeared in the Inverse Strategy newsletter. Sign up for free to receive actionable tips to help improve your life every Thursday.
Don’t Let #Hustleporn Kill Your Business
Grinding isn’t just a part of entrepreneurial culture, it’s part of the entrepreneur’s identity, as Jeff Gish, Ph.D., tells me. Gish built a business, and hired 59 full-time employees before he sold it off to pursue a degree in management. When Gish was building his business, he and his fellow entrepreneurs used to casually throw around lines like “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “sleep is for weaklings.”
Those two phrases are pervasive in internet startup culture, and indicateive of a culture sometimes called Hustleporn. If, like Gish, you haven’t heard of Hustleporn, look at these cucumbers in We Work’s watercoolers for a sense of what it’s all about. Like hustleporn devotees, entrepreneurs also wear sleep loss as a badge of honor, says Gish.
Though he’s now an assistant professor at the University of Central Florida’s College of Business, Gish still knows how to grind (he called me while waiting to board a flight — efficient!). But his research has shown him the high price entrepreneurs pay when they lose sleep.
Gish explains that our ability to innovate is severely hampered by sleep loss, as is our judgment of what ideas are good and bad. He saw this in his study published in the Journal of Business Venturing, where he evaluates the sleep habits and decisions of self-employed entrepreneurs who reviewed 14 different business pitches over two weeks.
Those who got fewer hours of sleep than usual were unable to consistently pick the best pitches (which were evaluated by a separate panel). They also ranked the “low quality” ideas as slightly higher than their well-rested counterparts did.
Gish explains that these sleep-restricted entrepreneurs underperformed because they were too focused on obvious factors that would make an idea work, but missed more nuanced aspects of what might make a business a success or a failure.
“They focus more on superficial features,” he says. “So they think: ‘Oh, well that’s made by child psychologists at Stanford, so obviously it will be good for kids,’ even if the business doesn’t make sense. Those things may not be important for the success of the business. They lock into them nevertheless.”
How Much Sleep is Enough? Know Your Sleep Equation.
Not everyone believes Gish when he speaks about the importance of sleep for entrepreneurs. One angel investor told him that he “doesn’t need to sleep more than three hours.”
This data offers a retort — more sleep is better, even if you can get by on three hours. “You’re better at evaluating opportunities when you get four hours of sleep, than when you get three,” he says.
Still, for that investor and for many people with busy jobs and big aspirations, the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night is a pipedream. Sometimes, you might have to go a week or so on less sleep that you’d like just to get the work done.
That’s sleep restriction — which means your getting less sleep than usual, but not necessarily pulling all-nighters. Sleep-restriction feels manageable in the moment, but builds up over time. It’s easy to say you’ll make up for that lost hour or two on the weekends (but, that’s probably not a great move). But during the week, those lost hours amount to small cognitive declines that take a toll on entrepreneurial decisions.
“Actually, when you’re totally sleep-deprived, your deficits aren’t as bad as when you’re sleep restricted,” Gish says. “I think that’s because people are really bad at recognizing when they’re sleep restricted or not. They think they can power through it when they actually have these cognitive deficits.”
The best way to avoid those cognitive deficits is to know your sleeping patterns. Gish describes it as a “sleep equation”: If you’re keeping track, you may realize when you’ve been out of whack for a while. If that big business move coincides with a night or (more) of bad sleep, then you’ll know that it’s worth asking for some wiggle room. Sleep on it — even for just one night.
“If you don’t understand what your sleep equation is, you’re going to go about your days making decisions as though the situation is normal, when maybe you had two hours less than you need,” he says.
“If you understand what your sleep equation is, you’ll know that you need to ask for time to sleep on something — or just defer the decision until a night when you slept well.”
Don’t fall prey to Hustleporn. Sleep when your body tells you to, and your business may thank you for it.
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